June 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA3

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Using Focus Groups to Check Youth Perceptions of Agriculture

What comes to your mind when you think of a farmer? According to results from a series of focus groups, Iowa middle school students often think of an old man, dressed in overalls, smelling dirty, and chewing on a straw. Though farmers were considered important by urban and rural participants, urban youth had little interest in agricultural careers. In fact, all participants equated agriculture with farming rather than the wider industry. These results, though not statistically representative, indicate that those who wish to communicate with Iowa youth should not assume a wide base of awareness about or interest in agriculture.

Mary Holz-Clause
Industrial Specialist
Internet address: x1clause@exnet.iastate.edu

Mark Jost
Communication Specialist
Internet address: x1jost@exnet.iastate.edu

Iowa State University Extension
Ames, Iowa

What comes to your mind when you think of a farmer? Iowa middle school students often think of an old man, dressed in overalls, smelling dirty, and chewing on a straw. This perception came through in a series of focus groups conducted during the winter of 1992-93 in selected Iowa communities.

The objective of the study was to learn more about middle school students' perceptions of agriculture and the food processing industry in Iowa, so commodity groups could develop agricultural curriculum appropriate for a youth audience. The focus group approach was chosen because it has proven to be effective for uncovering and understanding attitudes and opinions of individuals (Krueger, 1988).


The focus groups, conducted by Iowa State University Extension, were sponsored by a coalition of Iowa commodity groups. The focus groups took place in seven locations: four in urban areas (population 25,000-200,000) and three in rural areas (population less than 3,000) The urban and rural locations were selected to determine if there was a difference in attitudes among rural and urban youth.

The focus groups were composed of a roughly equal mix of boys and girls, and varied in size from five to seven participants. Researchers worked through the schools and asked principals or guidance counselors for a typical demographic representation of middle school youth in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. In an effort to make the participants as comfortable as possible, the discussions took place at school. Youth were required to obtain parental permission before they could participate.

Focus group questions included the following:

  • When I hear the word "agriculture" I think of ___________.
  • How does the word "agriculture" make you feel?
  • Tell me about the good things that agriculture does.
  • Why do you think the people in agriculture do those things?
  • Tell me about the bad things that agriculture does.
  • Why do you think the people in agriculture do those things?
  • Has agriculture touched your life in the last 24 hours? How?
  • If agriculture disappeared today, would it matter to you personally? How? To your community? How? To Iowa? How?

The focus group discussions were recorded and hand-written notes taken by an assistant moderator. The notes were intended to capture not only the overall discussion, but noteworthy quotes, observations of group dynamics, body language, and possible follow-up questions. In almost all cases, adults (aside from the moderator and assistant moderator) were not present.

After the session, the moderator and assistant moderator debriefed and checked their perceptions of the discussion. Then the assistant moderator prepared a report from the notes and passed the report on to the moderator for review. The reports from the seven focus groups were used to create a summary report. Though the sample was not random or large enough to be representative, some themes emerged.


Stereotypical Views of Agriculture Prevail

Youth equated agriculture with farming, but made no connection to the technical or research-intensive aspects of agriculture. For example, farming was perceived to be hard, physical labor and stressful because of machinery breakage, weather uncertainties, and price variances. However, genetics, research, engineering, financial management, or international commodity markets were not mentioned by the youth.

Youth, both rural and urban, tended to think of farmers as wearing bib overalls and chewing on a straw. Some youth said they knew farmers. The farmers they knew didn't fit the stereotype, but "other farmers" did.

Farmers' Image Vaguely Positive

Some urban youth seemed not only ignorant of agriculture, but wished to remain so. They had no interest in agriculture and seemed to view a career in agriculture with disdain or at least apathy. Despite the disdain, interviews did not uncover any anger or resentment toward agriculture. Most youth expressed a vague sense of gratitude to farmers for raising food, with rural youth taking some pride in their connection to agriculture.

When students were asked to discuss the bad things that farmers do, use of pesticides that seep into the water supply was consistently mentioned. Other comments included soil erosion, taking the land so that houses couldn't be built, clearing of the rain forests in the southern hemisphere, cattle belching producing methane gas, and farmers not taking care of their animals properly.

However, the youth indicated they feel farmers do these bad things because they have little choice. They have to make a living. Students did not bring up issues involving farmers raising animals for slaughter. When asked specifically if slaughtering animals was bad, they indicated that it was too bad the animals had to die, but that was the cycle of things.

Farmers are Important

Most youth were generally aware of the importance of agriculture to food production. They strongly associated farming with corn. Cereal products and vegetables were most often mentioned in relation to food. Meat, milk, or other agricultural products were seldom mentioned.

The youth acknowledged that without agriculture there would be no food. If agriculture disappeared, their personal lives, as well as their community and state, would be affected. However, the impact was usually stated in terms of traditional farming: no food, loss of farm jobs, loss of farm-related jobs, etc. Some responses indicated Iowa would be hurt because it would lose its reputation for agriculture.

Farm Careers Appear Unattractive for Many

Feelings about agriculture varied, with many rural youth taking pride in farming and working outdoors. Many urban youth viewing farming as hard, boring, physical labor.

Attitudes toward careers in agriculture differed. A few of the rural youth hoped to farm. Some were interested in agriculture-related careers such as a veterinarian or a mechanic. Very few of the urban youth wanted anything to do with careers in agriculture, although there were differing views about living in the country. Members of one group viewed the country as healthy and pure; but another group said the country was dirty--the "boonies." The youth seemed unaware of nontraditional and technical career opportunities.

The youth indicated a belief that people get into agriculture because they grew up on a farm, or that someone gave them a farm. Most of them did not think someone could farm, just because he or she wanted to. They felt that buying land, machinery, etc., would be too expensive unless someone had received help to get started.

Rural students were divided about whether it is harder to make a living in agriculture today than it was 10 years ago. Students who were aware of grain operations thought it was more difficult, while students who knew about livestock production thought it was about the same or maybe a little easier. Urban youth felt farming was getting easier because farmers have more machinery, pesticides, etc., to help them. Overall, agriculture was viewed as having a limited future, with the traditional image of agriculture dominating.


The researchers recommended the following measurers to the commodity groups when writing agricultural curriculum for youth.

Tie Agriculture to Youth Interests

Don't assume youth are interested in agriculture. Instead, actively cultivate this interest, and demonstrate that agriculture is relevant to youth. Materials must define agriculture and relate it to youths' lives. Sports or music personalities could be enlisted to deliver messages to youth about agriculture.

For instance instead of discussing food, which seems to be of minor relevance in their lives, a discussion of a scenario such as, "leather comes from animals, and is made into the tennis shoes and basketballs, etc." may be more effective. Because there is such a detachment from agriculture in the minds' of youth, it is important to help them make connections.

Materials may also emphasize the technical aspects of agriculture and the various career opportunities in these "hi-tech" fields. For example, youth may be interested in genetic engineering, global positioning, or high performance engines.

Educate Early

Because students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades appear to have already shaped their perceptions of agriculture, it may be best to target new efforts at children in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades.

Measure Your Results

Creation of a pre- and post-test of students' knowledge of agriculture may be an effective evaluation tool. Materials can be modified on an on-going basis to meet students' level of understanding.


The youth in these focus groups have largely shaped their perceptions of agriculture. However, these perceptions, even among rural participants, more often matched a stereotypical "hayseed" view of farming than the realities of a rapidly changing industry. Though farmers were considered important by urban and rural participants, urban youth had little interest in agricultural careers. In fact, all participants equated agriculture with farming rather than the wider industry. These results, though not statistically representative, indicate that commodity groups or others that wish to communicate with Iowa youth should not assume a wide base of awareness about, or interest in, agriculture.


Krueger, R. A. (1988). Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


What We Learned about Conducting Focus Groups with Youth

As with any research technique, use staff who have appropriate training to conduct the research. Focus groups don't just happen; they are not just informal discussion groups. They require careful planning and much groundwork. The questioning route, the moderator's leadership, the way the data is captured (e.g., notes, audio tape, or video tape), and a variety of other factors affect the quality of the data.

Get permission from parents or guardians of the youth you want to interview, particularly if you are taping (audio or video) the session. Send permission slips home a few days ahead of your visit so participants can take it home for their parents to sign, then return to school. Arrive at the session early enough so the youth who forgot about the form (there will be some) have time to call home for at least oral permission.

Prepare many questions. You may use two to three times as many questions as you would with adults. But just because you've asked a question and received an answer (or maybe not) don't be afraid of rephrasing the question and asking it again later. Youth will have had time to think about your question and may have more responses.

Not all focus group sessions click. Schedule enough groups (five to seven) so you can afford one or two failures. Then don't pressure yourself to make each group work. Pressure will only make you nervous, which will only make the participants uneasy.

Meet the students on their turf. Go to their school. Sit on the floor. The school environment worked well for us, because it was familiar to the participants but was structured enough that the youth didn't view the focus group as recess. Don't dress up too much. Be comfortable.

Icebreakers are optional. We didn't use them. The students probably wondered what this focus group business was all about, so we got right to the questions and ended the suspense.

Explain that the focus group session is not a quiz. Consider that almost every time an adult asks a young person a question, the adult is looking for either (a) an explanation or justification, or (b) a correct answer. Explain that there are no right or wrong answers and that you just want to know what they think. They may not believe you at first, but you can drive this point home by being nonjudgmental throughout the session.

Interviewing youth is different than interviewing adults. Usually adults will talk a lot, even if they have little to say. They have lots of experiences, wisdom, and opinions that no one ever asks them about. Youth, on the other hand, have had fewer years to acquire all those ideas.

Lead, if necessary. In focus group training, we were taught to avoid asking leading questions. But some youth won't talk if you don't suggest possible responses or play out a scenario (in as neutral a fashion as possible). Participants didn't seem shy about disagreeing with us or offering their own responses if they had something to say. All the same, don't lead any more than you have to.

Push, but do so gently. When interviewing adults, you can draw out the quieter ones by asking them questions directly. Use this approach with care on youth. You can call on individuals, but go easy. Some kids will withdraw even more if you target them. Give lots of opportunities by looking at group members and waiting a few seconds. If no one bites, rephrase the question, or move on. Maybe you can recast the question and ask it again later.

Don't try to act like the youth you're interviewing. You're not a kid. They don't expect you to be. Be friendly, and accepting, and act your age. They can cope.

Don't think that little discussion means you failed. Youth can be succinct. You can learn a lot in a few words.